PARIS — The strangest thing on Wednesday night at Parc des Princes was not a Milan side starting a UEFA Champions League game with no Italian players for the first time ever but that Paris Saint-Germain’s charge towards a 3-0 Group F win was led by a French talent from the youth academy.
The Ligue 1 giants have become synonymous with non-domestic superstar names over the names despite developing plenty while the Serie A powerhouse has traditionally been a bastion of Italian excellence even as bitter rivals Inter took the same route as PSG and imported many key pieces.
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Leading Luis Enrique’s home side was not opening scorer and talisman Kylian Mbappe nor second goal scorer and big money summer signing Randal Kolo Muani, and it was not even Ousmane Dembele who remains without his first goal since moving back to France from Barcelona.
PSG’s star man on Wednesday was Warren Zaire-Emery who not only became the French champions’ first ever player to make 20 starts across all competitions before the age of 18 but also the youngest player on record with three UCL assists at just 17 years and 231 days old.
The prodigious teenage talent’s ability was clear for all to see even last season against Bayern Munich as Les Parisiens limped out of Europe at the round of 16 stage once again, but he has kicked it up a level this campaign against Borussia Dortmund, Newcastle United and now Milan.
Zaire-Emery was an injury doubt ahead of the Rossoneri clash having picked up a knock which forced him to sit out the Championnat win over RC Strasbourg Alsace last Saturday but he started at Parc des Princes and was crucial in Mbappe’s opener, keeping his balance to tee up his teammate.
Older players would perhaps have gone to ground under pressure in the middle of the field but the French wonderkid not only stayed on his feet but kept moving forward which enabled him to locate Mbappe who did the rest with a clinical low finish past Mike Maignan.
Similarly, just a few weeks ago with hopes fading against Newcastle at St. James’ Park, it was Zaire-Emery who threatened to drag the French outfit back into the contest by assisting Lucas Hernandez for a consolation header and he repeated the trick for Achraf Hakimi in Rennes just days later.
Luis Enrique did not hesitate in handing the keys to PSG’s midfield to the youth academy graduate upon his arrival this past summer to the extent that Marco Verratti was deemed surplus to requirements after years of service in Paris and Zaire-Emery’s second assist further justified that.
However, it is not just the Spaniard who is absolutely in love with the ludicrous Montreuil talent’s skillset — Thierry Henry named him France under-21 captain before the age of 18 which is a record over the past three decades in a country famed for its expertise in youth talent development.
It was somewhat striking to see PSG doing away with Milan on the field with four senior France internationals in the starting XI as well as Zaire-Emery who was joined by Milan goalkeeper Maignan in representing the fertile Parisien academy which for years has haunted the capital club in Europe.
There is some way to go before Zaire-Emery can hope to emulate the likes of a 20-year-old Jude Bellingham in terms of impact at such a tender age but the former has three years to get close to the latter’s elite levels and the early signs have been encouraging enough to even prompt such parallels.
Should he continue to dominate for PSG from midfield in the way that he is doing so far under Luis Enrique, Zaire-Emery realistically has the potential to develop into a truly top player and lead his Qatar-backed childhood club’s renewed hunt for elusive Champions League glory.